Monday, 30 November 2009

Azerbaijan: The road to Hajj

It is an ancient land at the crossroads of Europe and Central Asia and is said to have been the location of the Garden of Eden.

Different cultures and civilisations have met in Azerbaijan for thousands of years and the country was one of the first to embrace Islam when Arabian invaders imposed their religion on the region in the seventh century.

But when Azerbaijan fell under the control of the former Soviet Union in 1920, atheism became state policy; many Muslim leaders were exiled or killed and mosques were closed down or destroyed.

When the country regained its independence in 1991, many embarked on a journey to rediscover their faith and heritage and to fill the religious vacuum left by Communist rule.

Painful journey

Thirty-one-year-old Salamova Samira is a mother of two and part of the 95 per cent of Azerbaijanis who consider themselves Muslims. But, more significantly, she is one of only five per cent who actually practice their faith and is about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.

"I started praying when I was around 12 years old. There was only grandma [Samira's great-grandmother] who prayed in our family. She was 115 years old. She read the Quran," Samira says.

"When I was a schoolgirl, I also took lessons to learn the Quran. This was difficult then as many people viewed Islam in a bad light, unlike today."

The older generation, like Samira's mother, lived their lives without observing the central tenets of their religion and, more often than not, do not feel any need to start doing it now.

Samira will travel from Baku, the country's capital where she lives, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. But, for her, the road to Hajj has been a long one marked by pain and hardship.

"I had been praying until I turned 17. Then I got married and stopped praying. Having a family with children, I just could not find the time.

"My husband was a Muslim too. He was not against the fact that I prayed regularly. But I just could not do it. I have two daughters, aged 11 and 13 years old," she explains.

Her relationship with her husband soured and after five years of marriage they divorced.

"As the saying goes, when the world knocks you down on your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray," she says.

Performing the pilgrimage seemed like an impossible dream for Samira.

Although she earns a decent living as a house-keeping manager at a hotel, she knew it would take her years to save enough money to go on Hajj.

"Going to the Hajj was my dream. But with my salary, it was not possible. I always thought it would take a miracle for me to go," she says.

But fate was to intervene for Samira when a friend of her mother offered to sponsor her pilgrimage.

Islamic revival

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has witnessed something of an Islamic revival; hundreds of new mosques have been built, old ones have been restored and new religious schools have been opened.

For many young Azerbaijanis, like Samira, an interest in Islam is re-emerging and stronger than ever.

"I can not describe my feelings, the first was fear. At the same time, I feel happy too," Samira says.

"After the Hajj, you would expect more of yourself. Before the Hajj, you can make some mistakes, but after the Hajj, you should be more careful in making your decisions.

"Everyone makes mistakes, commits sin, and lies. After the Hajj, you should not go back to your old ways. It is easy to go to the Hajj, but after that, it is as if you are born again, you become clean and innocent."

"And you should keep yourself that way. That is very hard. That is why I am afraid. But I will go and when I come back, I hope I can manage to do so."

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Hadith: Ask god for forgiveness and health

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Ask God for forgiveness and health, for after being granted certainty, one is given nothing better than (good) health." - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 780

Japan: Road to Hajj

The road to Hajj in the Land of the Rising Sun begins with the little known fact that there are ethnic Japanese Muslims.

Everyday the call to prayer is made in different corners of the predominantly Buddhist country - unobtrusively within the confines of its 50 or so mosques and approximately 100 musollas or communal prayer rooms.

Twenty-six-year-old Kubo-san prays at a small musolla in the agricultural district of Saitama, about two hours outside the capital, Tokyo.

Built 15 years ago by Bangladeshi workers, Kubo is the only ethnic Japanese in the congregation.

"I was born into a very ordinary Japanese family," he says. "We did not have a strong sense of religion."

Kubo's upbringing mirrors that of many Japanese - their attitudes and philosophy towards life shaped by the ancient religion of Shinto.

An ancient polytheistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of nature and is unique to Japan.

While divination and shamanism is used to gain insights into the unknown, there are no formal scriptures or texts, nor a legacy of priesthood that structures the religion.

After the Second World War, Shinto suffered a huge setback when the emperor was forced to denounce his status as a 'living god'.

While many historians would claim that the Japanese people lost their faith after this, recent surveys suggest that at least 85 per cent still profess their belief in both Shintoism and Buddhism.

'Special meaning'

"The first I knew about Islam was in my school days," Kubo says.

"The schools in Japan usually teach history. I knew about Islam in such history classes. Although I knew only a little bit, it shook my soul strongly."

His interest in Islam developed as he read more about it, but it was only when he began to meet expatriate Muslims in Japan that he considered converting.

Now, he is preparing to go on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, for the first time.

"We Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca. And pray 'peace be upon Prophet Muhammad'. He was born in this town and started Islam in Mecca. So for Muslims, it has a special meaning to go to Mecca. I feel honoured that I have this opportunity to go there."

'First step'

But just five years ago, Kubo's pilgrimage would not have been possible.

Reda Kenawy is Egyptian but he moved to Japan when he was in his twenties. He worked for a travel agency and decided to branch out to form his own agency specialising in organising Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.

"All my staff said I was crazy when I wanted to plan the Hajj trip," Kenawy says. "In terms of business aspects, there must be a demand in the market to cover the costs. It would not work if there are no Muslims going."

"So I told them someone has to start, someone has to take the first step, then others could take it from there."

But, it was an uphill task, particularly when dealing with the Saudi Arabian authorities.

Kenawy says they told him: "We've never heard of Japanese Muslims and we've never heard of Hajj trips organised from Japan."

"So I told them there were Muslims in Japan and I was there as a Japanese. I have the Japanese nationality and I was representing Japan and wanted to bring Japanese pilgrims for Hajj.

"They said I couldn't and that my passport was forged and I looked Egyptian."

'Honour and happiness'

Kenawy persisted in his quest to take Muslim pilgrims from Japan to Mecca and five years on, his travel agency is one of only two registered companies that have been sanctioned by the Saudi government to organise Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.

The number of pilgrims using Kenawy's agency has grown year on year, but for him the most encouraging development is the increase in ethnic Japanese Muslims.

"Right now, we have 90 per cent foreigners and 10 per cent [ethnic Japanese]. My dream is to have the opposite - to have 90 per cent Japanese or maybe 99 per cent original Japanese and only one per cent foreigners."

Abdullah Taki is a 36-year-old former body-piercer who converted to Islam in 2006. He made his Hajj pilgrimage in 2007.

"For me, the meaning of visiting the Kaabah is not to see a building but to visit God's home, to meet God," he says.

"At first, when we reached the country by airplane, we entered Madina before entering the city of Mecca. Although I could not see the area because I was in the airplane, when I heard the announcement that we [were there], I shed tears unconsciously.

"I felt an indescribable sense of honour and happiness. I was very deeply touched."


Like Kubo, Taki's contact with Muslims in Japan started mainly with the expatriate community.

Every Friday, Muslims from Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Japan pray together in Tokyo's Cami Mosque, which is modeled on Turkey's beautiful Blue Mosque.

There are no official records of the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims but some estimates put it at 10,000 - about a tenth of the country's total Muslim population.

The community of Japanese Muslims is so small that when they meet new faces for the first time, a sense of camaraderie is immediately established.

Higouch-san is 73 years old and has been a Muslim for more than 45 years. Mahmuda Saito is 63 and converted more than 30 years ago. Both know how difficult it can be to practice Islam in Japan.

When Higouch and Saito became Muslims there were only two mosques in the whole of Japan.

"It was very difficult. We Japanese have our own culture and traditions so it is quite difficult to carry out five prayers a day and fasting for a month," Higouch says.

'Planting seeds'

Saito is preparing to go on Hajj for the first time. As for many other Japanese Muslims, this involves a lot of self-study.

"It is not a normal holiday so I try to start from the preparation of my heart," she says.

"To learn how to prepare my mind to carry out the Hajj rituals, I read the books regarding the Hajj everyday at home. I would like to absorb the knowledge of the Hajj as much possible before the trip.

"It could be my last Hajj ... [so] I visit this holy city to try to feel the life of the Prophet and his companions of a long time ago."

Kenawy will be leaving Japan with 120 pilgrims - seven of whom are ethnic Japanese and going on Hajj for the first time and he is hopeful that this number will continue to grow.

"Like when you plant a seed and watch it grow, it can easily die or grow to be a big tree with many branches which cover everything. But it's not a tree yet. It's very easy to be broken now," he says.

"But with all the people's support, I think 10 or 20 years from now, maybe I'm not here, I can see there will be an organisation like a ministry for Hajis like in Singapore or Indonesia."

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Both Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Focus on Family, Sharing

Picture Source: The Gazette

Both Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Focus on Family, Sharing
By Nihad Awad

Many American Muslims will eat their turkey a bit late in the day this year because Thanksgiving falls on the same day some Muslims fast until sunset in observance of the Day of Arafah, the spiritual peak of the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca.

Arafah is a hill called "Mount of Mercy" and its surrounding empty plain near Mecca. On this climax of the Hajj season millions of pilgrims of all races and backgrounds, including thousands of Americans, will assemble for supplication to God. This is a physical representation of universal equality and the unity of humankind.

American Muslims have a double blessing this year. They are marking both events, Thanksgiving and the end of Hajj, with activities that stress sharing with others and the importance of family to people of all faiths.

The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on Muslims in that state to volunteer at a soup kitchen as a way to celebrate Thanksgiving and the end of the Hajj. CAIR’s Cincinnati chapter is giving food packages, including turkeys, to needy families.

Thanksgiving week, the Muslims Against Hunger Project is organizing special "Muslims Serve" days to recall the ultimate sacrifice the Prophet Abraham was prepared to make and to offer thanks for God's many blessings.

Hajj and Thanksgiving were also combined in a New Jersey food giveaway for the needy on Sunday in Plainfield, N.J., at the Center of Islamic Enlightenment.

In Mississippi, scores of Muslim volunteers gave up their free time to feed the hungry and homeless in areas particularly hard hit by the national recession.

Muslim university students in North Carolina this year donated food to groups that feed the hungry. While in California, Muslims joined Jews, Buddhists, Baha'is, and Catholics at an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration in a synagogue.Muslims in Iowa, along with representatives of nine other faith traditions, attended the annual Inter-Religious Council Thanksgiving Prayer Service in Cedar Rapids.

In Georgia, Christians, Muslims and Jews came together to share a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. Proceeds from the dinner went to a local food bank.

On Friday, Muslims in America and worldwide will celebrate the holiday of Eid al-Adha, or "festival of the sacrifice." "Eid" also commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God's command. The holiday is celebrated with prayers, gifts for children, distribution of meat to the needy, and social gatherings.You may hear the greeting “Eid Mubarak,” or “have a blessed holiday.”

And you know Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha are now sharing the same spiritual and social space when Best Buy, for the first time, puts a "Happy Eid Al-Adha" in its "Black Friday" newspaper insert.

As with Thanksgiving, Eid al-Adha is a time when everyone counts their blessings and offers thanks for friends and family, even if circumstances may not be the best in any particular year.

"The first to be summoned to paradise on the Day of Resurrection will be those who praise God in prosperity and adversity," said the Prophet Muhammad.

Just as Thanksgiving is a time of family and friends, so too is Eid al-Adha. The Prophet Muhammad told the early Muslims, "[T]hey are days of [eating] and rejoicing with one's family."

The Quran, Islam's revealed text, urges those who reach physical and spiritual maturity to pray: "My Lord! Grant me the grace that I may thank you for the favors that You have bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may do good deeds that will please You."

So this year, despite a weak but recovering economy and other domestic and international troubles, let us all count our blessings and demonstrate true thankfulness by sharing whatever we have with those in need.

(Nihad Awad is national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America's largest Muslim civil rights organization. He may be contacted at:

Friday, 27 November 2009

What is Qurbani

Qurbani is a sacrifice that is offered at the time of Eid al-Adha to show gratitude towards Allah and to provide for the poor and needy.

The Prophet Muhammad was once asked by his Companions: "O Prophet of Allah! What is this qurbani?" He replied, "It is the Sunnah of your father Ibrahim ." (Hadith - Ibn Majah)

Allah says in the Qur'an: "It is neither their flesh nor their blood that reaches Allah; it is your piety that reaches Him." (Qur'an 22:37)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hajj/Eid Photos - 6

Bangladeshi Muslims offer Eid al-Adha prayers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008.

A Member of the French Council for Muslim Communities visits defaced graves of Muslim World War I soldiers at the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette cemetery in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, northern France, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008. Vandals desecrated at least 500 tombs of Muslim soldiers in northern France on Monday. The desecration near the town of Arras appeared timed with the start of Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Muslim calendar.

A girl walks home after attending prayers on the first day of the Muslim religious festival of Eid al-Adha at Obanikoro in Lagos, Nigeria on December 8, 2008.

Kyrgyz men pray on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 8, 2008.

Members of an exclusive Muslim community who call themselves An-Nadsir attend prayer to celebrate Eid al-Adha in a remote area in Gowa district, in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province, December 8, 2008.

A general view of the tents of Muslim pilgrims in Mina, Saudi Arabia on December 9, 2008, where they will camp for three days and cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan.

Water is sprayed in cooling mists over Muslim pilgrims as they pray outside Namira mosque in Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008.

Muslim pilgrims pray outside Namira mosque in Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008.

Muslim pilgrims shave their heads after casting stones at a pillar symbolizing Satan in Mina, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2008.

An aerial view of Muslim pilgrims atop Mount Mercy outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia on December 7, 2008. From this hill, the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon nearly 1,400 years ago.

A Muslim pilgrim reads the koran at Mount Arafat, southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on December 7, 2008. A human tide washed over Mount Arafat today morning as hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims gathered for the key moment of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

A Muslim pilgrim prays at the top of Mount Noor in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. The pilgrims will visit the Hira cave in Mount Noor where the Prophet Mohammad worshipped before his first revelation.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Hajj Photos - 5

Thousands of motorcyclists are seen waiting to board a ferry taking them to their hometown on Madura Island to celebrate Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha at Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008.

Muslims offer prayers before sacrificing a goat on Eid al-Adha in Allahabad, India, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008.

Muslims from the Abobo quarter of Abidjan pray during the annual celebration of Tabaski (Eid al-Adha) on December 8, 2008

Palestinian children play on a carousel on the second day of the Eid al-Adha festival in east Jerusalem, Tuesday, Dec. 9 2008.

Iraqi children grab free toys during the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival in southern Baghdad's Doura district in Iraq on December 10, 2008.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Funny Business of Israeli Settlements and Palestinian State

Israel is continuing to build its settlements and the world is showing displeasure. Everyone know that Israel will go on and grab land of poor farmers, killing scores of women and children on their way.

Poor Palestinians have no way so they decide to go to UN and the EU. The Israeli dictators warn the Palestinian leaders that such a move will be dangerous and will result in them withdrawing from the talks.

The EU who like to think that they have some clout but in reality have none are also scared to recognise the Palestinian state and say that this move might be 'premature'

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said: "Everyone knows this will not go to the Security Council without the green light from the US.

"If the US gives the green light, it means the relations between the US and Israel are in trouble.

"The US and Israel have avoided the Security Council for more than 16 years. To go back to it today, would be a major shift, a game changer in the diplomatic process.

"All Palestinians would be quite excited. Everyone, on all various levels, feels betrayed by a process that delivered not much after 16 years and seven agreements with the Israelis while quadrupling the illegal Israeli settlements."

And one wonders why Muslims get angry over Israeli Injustice.

Hajj Photos - 4

Muslims pray together to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday Monday Dec.8, 2008 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Indian Muslims pray together to mark Eid al-Adha in Mumbai, India December 9, 2008.

An Imam holds a mass for the Eid al-Adha Muslim Feast at a mosque in the town of Suvorovo, east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008.

An overcrowded passenger train is seen in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 8, 2008. Millions of residents in Dhaka had started the exodus home from the capital city ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which marks the end of the Hajj.

Iranian women perform the Eid Al-Adha prayers at Tehran University on December 9, 2008.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Sikh Islamophobe to form united front with white facists

A Sikh who claims that Islam is based on “deception, fraud and surprise attack” is set to become the first non-white member of the British National Party.

Rajinder Singh, 78, who emigrated from the Punjab region of India in 1967, said yesterday that he would be honoured to become a member of the BNP because it is the “only party who has the guts to say the word Muslim”.

“It’s a natural process in the Muslim psyche, to take over. The fear of Islam is well founded, well justified,” he told The Times. “I don’t hate Muslims. By definition a Sikh is supposed to love all — even the enemy.”

The retired schoolteacher will be put forward by the far Right party’s executive as its first non-white member after it makes changes to its constitution. The BNP was forced to agree to the changes in September after the Equality and Human Rights Commission took legal action against the party claiming that its rules, which restricted membership to “indigenous Caucasians”, were a breach of the Race Relations Act.

Singh, it turns out, hates Muslims because they killed his father in India during Partition. Yes, that's 62 years ago and yes, it was probably one Muslim, but Singh is a man of principle. He admires the BNP because they "do not wish to let anyone else oust them from the land of their ancestors" and, putting aside the issue of his own contamination of the land of their ancestors, he would, he says, be "honoured" to join. They have, a touch cautiously, returned the compliment. "He is perhaps," said a BNP spokesman this week, "the kind of immigrant you want if you are going to have them."

Well, if you are "going to have them", what kind of immigrant do you want? Do you want a quiet one, who perhaps struggles with their English and leaves public debate to the "indigenous" people who speak the lingo and know what they're talking about? Or do you want one who speaks it quite well and keeps mouthing off about their "rights"? Do you want one who works, one, in fact, who has nicked a British job from a British worker? Or do you want one sponging off the system who hasn't?

It's tricky stuff. It really is tricky stuff. And if Nick Griffin's brilliantly petulant performance on Question Time failed to lead to the surge in BNP membership that hysterical commentators had predicted, the issues his party addresses remain real. We're all mongrels now, and if we're not we soon will be, but mongrels are no more of a guarantee of societal stability than all-white, all-black or all-brown.

Hajj Photos - 3

Children look on as they carry a goat in their vehicle on the eve of Eid al-Adha in Mumbai, India, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008.

In Istanbul, Turkey, the Blue Mosque is seen at dusk on the first day of Eid al-Adha on December 8, 2008.

Salwa Al-Masri (back) makes tea for her family as her child helps prepare a humble celebration on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on December 08, 2008 in the Rafah Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip. Abed couldn't buy a sheep to slaughter as a part of Eid Al-Adha celebration. Most of the sacrificial animals in Gaza have been smuggled through tunnels between Rafah and Egypt as Israel still blocks their crossings with Gaza Strip.

Chinese Muslims wait to buy mutton skewers during Eid al-Adha outside Huxi Mosque in Shanghai December 9, 2008.

Plastic flowers and posters of the dead adorn hundreds of graves as Shiite Muslims visit the graves of loved ones at the Martyr's cemetery in the southern city of Najaf, some 160 kms from the capital Baghdad as Shiites mark the start of the Eid al-Adha on December 9 2008.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Indonesia Civil Service Discriminates against Hijabis

Photo Source.

A hijab-clad Indonesian woman was denied the right to conduct civil service for wearing the Islamic headscarf, raising eyebrows in the world’s most populous country.

"I was surprised at the requirement," Siti Aisyah, 34, told The Jakarta Post on Saturday, November 21.

The religion teacher has applied to the Karo education administration in North Sumatra for a civil service job.

But to her surprise, she received a “no” answer, with the administration arguing that the Muslim teacher was rejected over her veiled photos.

"I don't know if there is a different requirement in other regions, but we follow national regulations," Daud Sembiring, a member of the Karo civil service recruitment committee, said.

But the hijab-clad woman ridiculed the argument.

"Headscarves are compulsory for Muslim women," Siti said.

Hijab is a code of dress for Muslim women, not a symbol showing ones affiliation.

The Muslim woman is not disappointed by the rejection.

She only hopes the requirement would be removed to help hijab-clad women apply for the civil service.

"I prefer to keep my aurat safe rather than successfully enter the civil service but have to expose it."


The move drew immediate fire in the Muslim country.

"This is a very discriminative and counterproductive requirement," Chaidir Ritonga, deputy speaker of the North Sumatra provincial legislative council, said.

"Such a requirement must not be used in the selection process."

He said the requirement necessitating women to provide photos without wearing hijab violates the basic principles of freedom for all people.

The lawmaker called for abolishing the requirement to avoid doing injustice to Muslim women.

"How can we ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves?

“It is a religious obligation for them."

Muslims make up some 86.1 percent of Indonesia’s 235 million population, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Joe Sacco's graphic novel of Palestine

Colleagues laughed when a young journalist in Palestine announced his intention to tell the story of that region though cartoons. Twenty years later, Joe Sacco is one of the world's leading exponents of the graphic novel form…

Picture Source: Macmillan

In his books, Joe Sacco always draws himself the same way: neat and compact, a small bag slung across his body, a notebook invariably in his hand. At a single glance, the reader understands that he is both reporter and innocent abroad, an unlikely combination that propels him not only to ask difficult questions, but to go on asking them long after all the other hacks have given up and gone home. You sense in this black-and-white outline, too, a certain taut, physical alertness. Should there be trouble, he is, it seems, ready to run.

The expression on his face, however, is more difficult to read. Sacco keeps his eyes permanently hidden behind the shine of his owlish spectacles; anyone wishing to gauge his deeper emotions must rely instead on his bottom lip. Basically, this lip has two modes. When he is frustrated, bewildered or angry, it moves stubbornly forward and its corners droop. When he is happy, contentedly drinking beer, say, or mildly flirting, it peels back to reveal his teeth, which are big and rabbity and exceedingly un-American, as if crafted from a piece of old orange peel.

Is his eyelessness intended to send some kind of subtle message regarding the reliability of the reporter-narrator? Sacco, who in real life has elfin features and brown eyes, and is sitting next to me at a gleaming white table in the offices of his London publisher, winces. "It is deliberate now," he says. "But it certainly wasn't in the beginning. If you look at the first few pages of [my first book] Palestine, you'll see that I didn't used to be able to draw at all! Also, back then, I really was more like a tourist than a reporter and I suppose the way I drew myself reflected that. I was this naive person who didn't know where he was going or what he was doing. Since then, I've learned how to behave; nowadays, it would be a lie to make myself seem too bumbling.

"But some people have told me that hiding my eyes makes it easier for them to put themselves in my shoes, so I've kind of stuck with it. I'm a nondescript figure; on some level, I'm a cipher. The thing is: I don't want to emote too much when I draw myself. The stories are about other people, not me. I'd rather emphasise their feelings. If I do show mine – let's say I'm shaking [with fear] more than the people I'm with – it's only ever to throw their situation into starker relief."

Thanks to publishing hyperbole, writers often get called "unique". But Sacco's work truly is, combining as it does oral history, memoir and reportage with cartoons in a way that, when he started out, most people – himself included, at times – considered utterly preposterous.

Twenty years on, though, and the American cartoonist is widely regarded as the author of two masterpieces: Palestine, in which he reported on the lives of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to 1948, the beginning of the first Intifada, and the first Gulf War; and Safe Area Gorazde, which describes his experiences in Bosnia in 1994-95. Palestine won an American Book Award, and has sold 30,000 copies in the UK alone (this is a huge figure for a comic book, let alone a political comic book).

"With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco," wrote Edward Said in his foreword to the complete edition of Palestine (it was originally published as a series of nine comics). Safe Area Gorazde, following ecstatic reviews in which Sacco was named Art Spiegelman's heir apparent and tipped to win a Pulitzer, won the 2001 Eisner Award for best original graphic novel.

Footnotes in Gaza, his new book and his first long narrative for six years, returns Sacco to Palestine and, being rooted as much in the past as in the present, is perhaps his most ambitious work to date. But why go back? Aren't there plenty of crises to report elsewhere?

He shrugs. All he knows is that, a few years ago, he felt a fresh "compulsion" to write about Gaza; events in the territory had left him feeling "agitated". So in 2001, he and journalist Chris Hedges travelled there on assignment for Harper's magazine. The idea was that they would go to one city and focus on its history alone. Sacco suggested Khan Younis. In the back of his mind, he dimly remembered something he had read in Noam Chomsky's book, The Fateful Triangle, about an incident during the Suez crisis in 1956 in which a large number of Palestinian refugees were killed by Israeli soldiers.

"We asked around, people confirmed the story, and we thought it important for the history of the town," says Sacco. "But when Chris's piece was published, they cut Khan Younis out. Well, that further agitated me. I know the big picture is important but the big picture is made up of a lot of smaller things. It's a shame when those things get lost. It seems… unfair. I wanted to look at it myself. According to the UN, 275 people died in Khan Younis: why did that figure deserve to return to obscurity?"

In 2003, he went back. But once there, Sacco found himself becoming increasingly interested in another incident that had occurred around the same time – November 1956 – in the neighbouring town of Rafah. According to a couple of sentences in a UN report, scores of Palestinian civilians had also been shot by Israeli forces there during a procedure that should have been standard (the Israeli soldiers were screening Rafah's men in the hope of finding terrorists). Sacco wanted to know what had happened. Had the Israelis, as the UN report surmised, simply "panicked and opened fire on the running crowd"? Or was it more complicated than that?

Moreover, what effect had this incident had on the collective memory of Rafah, now once again in brutal conflict with the Israeli army?

In Rafah, almost all men of military age had reputedly been caught up in the incident so there were likely to be survivors still living whom he could interview at length. As a result, Footnotes in Gaza is divided in two. A first, shorter section investigates the killings at Khan Younis, and a second, longer section is devoted to events in Rafah.

"Both towns stand in for all those places, all those things, that are more widely left out of history. They're footnotes, but these were also an important day in some people's lives."

Footnotes in Gaza features all Sacco's trademarks. For a start, there is the author himself, one minute infuriated beyond all endurance by checkpoint bureaucracy, the next delightedly scoffing honeyed Arab pastries; unlike many reporters, Sacco is as interested in the process of getting the story as in the story itself, a fact which only serves to remind you of how highly filtered and polished most "news" is.

Then there are the people he meets. Sacco's ear for the way Palestinian men talk is as sharp as ever (as Edward Said has put it, they exchange their tales of suffering the way fishermen compare the size of their catch). Ditto his nose for lies and embellishments. As usual, his fixer – this time, his right-hand man is called Abed – takes a starring role, his tenacity seeming to surprise even his employer at times. Best of all, there are the moments when Sacco covers a page with one or two large frames, these bigger, more panoramic drawings capturing not only the claustrophobic scrum of a single, 21st-century Rafah street, from aerials on corrugated tin roofs down, but also the way it might have looked when Palestinian refugees arrived there in 1948 (he used old photographs as the basis for these drawings and has rendered the land dry, empty and bleakly forbidding).

But Footnotes is also a darker, less humorous book than Palestine; Sacco calls it "sombre". It's not only that the old men and women he interviews are describing such painful events. Footnotes is punctuated by a sense of history repeating itself or, perhaps, of history failing ever to stop, not even for the merest breather. As someone in Gaza tells Sacco: "Events are continuous."

You look at his drawings of hundreds of men sitting in a pen one day in 1956, under armed guard, no food, no water, their hands on their heads, and you could be looking at an equivalent atrocity at almost any time before or since, and in any number of places. "There are only so many ways you can skin a cat when it comes to screening people so you can kill them," says Sacco. "It was a horrific incident in and of itself but it is also representative of any number of other incidents, even if I'm reluctant to make direct comparisons myself."

Meanwhile, life in present-day Gaza grinds on. We see Sacco and his room-mate, Abed, listening to mortar fire, braving the curfew (the book is set before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza) and witnessing the demolition of homes. The book is haunted by a ghostly presence called Khaled, a man wanted by the Israelis. Always on the move, he has not had a proper night's sleep for several years. In Sacco's drawings, Khaled's features – his hawkish nose and long chin – cast impossibly long shadows over the rest of his face, leaving the reader unnervingly unsure whether he is to be feared or pitied.

Joe Sacco was born in Malta in 1960. His family emigrated, first to Australia and then, finally, to America when he was just a boy; his parents, who were socialists, were worried about the influence of the Catholic church on Maltese life. Sacco believes that the experiences of his parents had a big impact on his career. "In Australia, there were a lot of Europeans and they would all meet up and the commonality was the war. You heard a lot about it. I guess I realised conflict was just a part of life."

He decided to be a reporter and did a journalism degree at the University of Oregon (he still lives in Portland). His early jobs, however, were so indescribably boring – he worked initially for the journal of the National Notary Association – that he soon decided he'd be better off working for himself. First, he set up his own comics magazine. Later, he had a staff job on the Comics Journal. As far as his own drawing and writing goes, his influences include George Orwell and – this makes such perfect sense – Bruegel.

It was in the early 1990s, while he was living in Berlin, that he became interested in the Middle East. "I didn't have some grand plan. I just felt like I needed to go there and see for myself. It's so under-reported in America. At the time, I was trying to make a living as a cartoonist. I thought to myself: I can't just be some adventure tourist but maybe it is conceivable that I could do a comic about it. But I didn't even know if I would have the guts to go into the West Bank! This is how naive I was: I was bumbling around in East Jerusalem for a few days and I met a tourist who'd been to Nablus in a taxi. Oh, I thought: I could just get a taxi! I was pretty sheepish about telling people what I was doing. If I met a journalist or someone from an NGO, I was always afraid they would laugh – and one or two did."

Did he seriously believe he could make a living from this kind of work? "I'll be honest. I thought it was commercial suicide, writing about Palestine. I was cutting my own throat! It came out in nine issues and each one sold progressively worse. The last one sold under 2,000 copies in the US. That's when I thought: OK, I really made a mistake. When I did the next book [Safe Area Gorazde], I decided to do it as a single volume, simply so I wouldn't get demoralised as I went along."

It was Safe Area Gorazde that changed his fortunes. "Most American journalists agreed with my position on Bosnia and it was incredibly warmly received. The New York Times named it a notable book of the year and I received a Guggenheim fellowship, which really helped me financially. So when Palestine came out in a single volume, it had a new life. It sold 60,000 copies in America and it was widely translated. It has long since outsold Safe Area Gorazde. I think it'll be the book I'm remembered for."

In the years since, Sacco has published several more tales from Bosnia, among them the brilliant The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo, and he has reported from Iraq and Ingushetia for newspapers and magazines. He is now at work on two projects: a 48-page comic for the Virginia Quarterly Review about African migrants who attempt to get into Europe via Malta, and a story for Harper's about Camden, New Jersey, currently the poorest city in the US.

When he's not travelling, he treats his work "exactly like a proper job… I have to: Footnotes in Gaza took me four years. I have to produce at a certain rate and stick to a rigid two pages every five days. I don't story-board. I hardly even sketch anything out. I draw directly on to the board with my pencil. It's all hand-drawn. If I make a mistake, I cut out the panel and cut and paste the old-fashioned way".

Nevertheless, he is often away from home for long periods. In his books, he sometimes depicts himself gazing dreamily at a pretty girl in a bar. Has his career played havoc with his private life? "It played havoc with my life until I was almost 40. I have a girlfriend now and a mortgage, which feels pretty odd, but for about a 10-year period I was just so broke. I had to ask friends and my parents for money. It's difficult to have a personal life when you're broke because you can't afford to go out, and it isn't that attractive, either; people get fed up pretty quickly."

It seems to me, though, that Sacco must be quite tough; even when things are at their most difficult in Gaza or Bosnia, they never really seem to get him down. "Well, I know I'm going to leave," he says. "If I knew I was trapped the way people in Gaza are trapped, their lives simply closed down, maybe I would go insane. That's not to say that my stomach doesn't get a little twisted up as I'm going in and as I'm leaving. I love Gaza. I wouldn't say I see physical beauty in it. It's more to do with its people and my experiences with them: that physical closeness that you can't really avoid. Things are so hard there but – wow! – they always feed me the most amazing food." Still, for the "sake of my own sanity" he is planning on stepping away from war reporting in the near future. He is planning a graphic memoir about the Rolling Stones.

Will he one day return to Gaza for a third time? Or perhaps he could look at the conflict from Sderot or some other town on the Israeli side. "It depends on what I feel in my gut. There are lots of places in the world where things are pretty bad. When I read about them, though, I have to wait for the story to work on me. With Bosnia, it took a full year for that to happen. But I do feel Palestinians have been misrepresented in the America media over a long time; we've internalised all sorts of things about them.

"With Footnotes, I want people to appreciate the lost molecules of conflict: the details and sideshows that only exist until the people who remember them die. But I also want them to remember, when they're watching the news, that it comes to them out of context and that history always comes back to haunt you. An incident can resonate for a whole century or even longer."

As he considers the weight of all those years, his eyes narrow and I think to myself how good it is to be able to see them at last.

Hajj Photos - 2

Thousands of Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolising stoning Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last and most dangerous rite of the annual hajj, near the Saudi holy city of Mina on December 8, 2008. To complete the ritual, a pilgrim must throw 21 pebbles at each of three 25-meter (82-foot) pillars and this year the faithful are being given pebbles in pre-packed bags to spare them the effort of searching for the stones.

A Saudi worker sews Islamic calligraphy in gold thread on a drape to cover the Kaaba at the Kiswa factory in the holy city of Mecca on November 29, 2008. The Kaaba cover is called Kiswa and is changed every year at the culmination of the annual Hajj or pilgrimage. The Kaaba, Islam's holiest site which stands in the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque, contains the holy Black Stone which is believed to be the only piece remaining from an altar built by Abraham.

Thousands of tents housing Muslim pilgrims are crowded together in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008.

Faithful pray on the first day of the Muslim religious festival of Eid al-Adha in Kenya's coastal town of Mombasa, Kenya on December 8, 2008.

Some of the approximately 12,000-13,000 members from 19 mosques in the Islamic Society of Greater Houston gather on Moday, Dec. 8, 2008 to celebrate Eid-al Adha at the Reliant Center Hall in Houston, Texas.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The 10 days of Dhul Hijjah

Ibn 'Abbas says about the verse, "Remember Allah during the well known days," that it refers to the first ten days of Dhul-Hijjah. [This is related by al-Bukhari]

Allah swears an oath by them, and swearing an oath by something is indicative of its importance and great benefit. Allah says (interpretation of the meaning):

"By the dawn; by the 10 nights" - [Noble Quran 89:1-2]

Ibn Abbas, Ibn al-Zubayr, Mujahid and others of the earlier and later generations said that this refers to the first ten days of Dhul-Hijjah. Ibn Kathir said: "This is the correct opinion." [Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 8/413]

Praise be to Allah Who has created Time and has made some times better than others, some months and days and nights better than others, when rewards are multiplied many times, as a mercy towards His slaves. This encourages them to do more righteous deeds and makes them more eager to worship Him, so that the Muslim renews his efforts to gain a greater share of reward, prepare himself for death and supply himself in readiness for the Day of Judgment.

This season of worship brings many benefits, such as the opportunity to correct ones faults and make up for any shortcomings or anything that one might have missed. Every one of these special occasions involves some kind of worship through which the slaves may draw closer to Allah, and some kind of blessing though which Allah bestows His favor and mercy upon whomsoever He will. The happy person is the one who makes the most of these special months, days and hours and draws nearer to his Lord during these times through acts of worship; he will most likely be touched by the blessing of Allah and will feel the joy of knowing that he is safe from the flames of Hell. [Ibn Rajab, al-Lataif, p.8]

Ibn 'Abbas reports that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, "No good deeds done on other days are superior to those done on these days [meaning the ten days of Dhul-Hijjah]." The companions asked, "O Messenger of Allah, not even jihad in the way of Allah?" He said, "Not even jihad, except for the man who puts his life and wealth in danger [for Allah's sake] and returns with neither of them." [This is related by the group except Muslim and an-Nasa'i]

Ahmad and at-Tabarani record from Ibn 'Umar that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, "There is no day more honorable in Allah's sight and no acts more beloved therein to Allah than those in these ten days. So say tahlil (There is no deity worthy of worship but Allah: La ilaha ill Allah), takbir (Allah is the greatest: Allahu Akbar) and tahmid (All praise is due to Allah: alhumdulillah) a lot [on those days]." [Reported by Ahmad, 7/224; Ahmad Shakir stated it is Sahih]

Abu Hurairah relates that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, "There are no days more loved to Allah for you to worship Him therein than the ten days of Dhul Hijjah. Fasting any day during it is equivalent to fasting one year and to offer salatul tahajjud (late-night prayer) during one of its nights is like performing the late night prayer on the night of power. [i.e., Lailatul Qadr]." [This is related by at-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, and al-Baihaqi]

Ibn 'Umar narrated that at Mina, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, "Do you know what is the day today?" The people replied, "Allah and His Messenger know it better." He said, "It is the forbidden (sacred) day. And do you know what town is this?" They replied, " Allah and His Messenger know it better." He said, "This is the forbidden (sacred) town (Mecca). And do you know which month is this?" The people replied, "Allah and His Apostle know it better." He said, "This is the forbidden (sacred) month." The Messenger added, "No doubt, Allah made your blood, your properties, and your honour sacred to one another like the sanctity of this day of yours in this month of yours in this town of yours."

Narrated Ibn 'Umar: On the Day of Nahr (10th of Dhul-Hijjah), the Messenger (peace be upon him) stood in between the Jamrat during his Hajj which he performed (as in the previous Hadith) and said, "This is the greatest Day (i.e. 10th of Dhul-Hijjah)." The Messenger (peace be upon him) started saying repeatedly, "O Allah! Be Witness (I have conveyed Your Message)." He then bade the people farewell. The people said, "(This is Hajjat-al-Wada)." [Bukhari 2.798]

Staggering number of birth defects in Fallujah, Iraq

Doctors in Iraq's war-ravaged enclave of Falluja are dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants and a spike in early life cancers that may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting.

The extraordinary rise in birth defects has crystallised over recent months as specialists working in Falluja's over-stretched health system have started compiling detailed clinical records of all babies born.

Neurologists and obstetricians in the city interviewed by the Guardian say the rise in birth defects – which include a baby born with two heads, babies with multiple tumours, and others with nervous system problems - are unprecedented and at present unexplainable.

A group of Iraqi and British officials, including the former Iraqi minister for women's affairs, Dr Nawal Majeed a-Sammarai, and the British doctors David Halpin and Chris Burns-Cox, have petitioned the UN general assembly to ask that an independent committee fully investigate the defects and help clean up toxic materials left over decades of war – including the six years since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

"We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies," said Falluja general hospital's director and senior specialist, Dr Ayman Qais. "Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased dramatically."

The rise in frequency is stark – from two admissions a fortnight a year ago to two a day now. "Most are in the head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower limbs," he said. "There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of less than two years [old] with brain tumours. This is now a focus area of multiple tumours."

After several years of speculation and anecdotal evidence, a picture of a highly disturbing phenomenon in one of Iraq's most battered areas has now taken shape. Previously all miscarried babies, including those with birth defects or infants who were not given ongoing care, were not listed as abnormal cases.

The Guardian asked a paediatrician, Samira Abdul Ghani, to keep precise records over a three-week period. Her records reveal that 37 babies with anomalies, many of them neural tube defects, were born during that period at Falluja general hospital alone.

Dr Bassam Allah, the head of the hospital's children's ward, this week urged international experts to take soil samples across Falluja and for scientists to mount an investigation into the causes of so many ailments, most of which he said had been "acquired" by mothers before or during pregnancy.

Other health officials are also starting to focus on possible reasons, chief among them potential chemical or radiation poisonings. Abnormal clusters of infant tumours have also been repeatedly cited in Basra and Najaf – areas that have in the past also been intense battle zones where modern munitions have been heavily used.

Falluja's frontline doctors are reluctant to draw a direct link with the fighting. They instead cite multiple factors that could be contributors.

"These include air pollution, radiation, chemicals, drug use during pregnancy, malnutrition, or the psychological status of the mother," said Dr Qais. "We simply don't have the answers yet."

The anomalies are evident all through Falluja's newly opened general hospital and in centres for disabled people across the city. On 2 November alone, there were four cases of neuro-tube defects in the neo-natal ward and several more were in the intensive care ward and an outpatient clinic.

Falluja was the scene of the only two setpiece battles that followed the US-led invasion. Twice in 2004, US marines and infantry units were engaged in heavy fighting with Sunni militia groups who had aligned with former Ba'athists and Iraqi army elements.

The first battle was fought to find those responsible for the deaths of four Blackwater private security contractors working for the US. The city was bombarded heavily by American artillery and fighter jets. Controversial weaponry was used, including white phosphorus, which the US government admitted deploying.

Statistics on infant tumours are not considered as reliable as new data about nervous system anomalies, which are usually evident immediately after birth. Dr Abdul Wahid Salah, a neurosurgeon, said: "With neuro-tube defects, their heads are often larger than normal, they can have deficiencies in hearts and eyes and their lower limbs are often listless. There has been no orderly registration here in the period after the war and we have suffered from that. But [in relation to the rise in tumours] I can say with certainty that we have noticed a sharp rise in malignancy of the blood and this is not a congenital anomaly – it is an acquired disease."

Despite fully funding the construction of the new hospital, a well-equipped facility that opened in August, Iraq's health ministry remains largely disfunctional and unable to co-ordinate a response to the city's pressing needs.

The government's lack of capacity has led Falluja officials, who have historically been wary of foreign intervention, to ask for help from the international community. "Even in the scientific field, there has been a reluctance to reach out to the exterior countries," said Dr Salah. "But we have passed that point now. I am doing multiple surgeries every day. I have one assistant and I am obliged to do everything myself."

Friday, 20 November 2009

Hajj Photos - 1

Muslim pilgrims perform the "Tawaf" ritual around the Kaaba at Mecca's Grand Mosque before leaving the holy Saudi city at the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage on December 10, 2008. The official Saudi News Agency (SPA) reported that the most recent statistics put the total number of pilgrims this year at more than 2.4 million, almost 1.73 million from abroad and 679,000 from within the kingdom, mostly foreign residents.

Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims move around the Kaaba, the black cube seen at center, inside the Grand Mosque, during the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008.

Muslim pilgrims pray in a circle around the Kaaba inside the Grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

A Saudi policeman monitors screens connected to cameras set up at all holy places in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008, during the annual Hajj.

Muslim pilgrims are seen inside a building where, for three days, they will cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan in Mina, Saudi Arabia on December 9, 2008. More than two million Muslim pilgrims performed a second round of stoning walls symbolising the devil on Tuesday, as Hajj pilgrimage rituals neared their end.